Following a request from the Prime Minister on 10 December 2007 I asked the Department of Health and Ageing to undertake an audit of current supply of doctors, nurses and other health professionals in rural and regional Australia and also to identify where health workforce shortages exist.

We had been keenly aware of the difficulties faced by many Australians in accessing necessary services in rural and regional areas. Many smaller regional centres are lacking essential health services and this has resulted in the system failing individuals. Not enough has been done in recent years to tackle these issues.

I am sure that the findings of the audit will not hold many surprises. The following report reiterates what we have known from anecdotal accounts. The current supply of health professionals is not sufficient to meet the current needs. This situation will be exacerbated as both the population and the workforce itself age. Distribution of the workforce is poor, declining significantly with greater remoteness. We are highly reliant upon overseas trained health professionals. Indeed, there has been reliance in recent years in overseas trained doctors filling the gaps in rural and regional communities.

What has also emerged is that national data needs to be better to give a more up-to-date and complete picture of the workforce and to allow for better planning for the future. The recent agreement by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to the implementation of the National Registration and Accreditation Scheme will be supported through a national minimum dataset for the professions that it covers, namely the medical workforce, nursing and midwifery, the dental workforce and a number of allied professions (chiropractics, optometry, osteopathy, pharmacy, physiotherapy and psychology). This will not only have benefits in terms of better regulation of these professions, but also will mean that complete data on all these professions will be available nationally. Future workforce initiatives can now be based upon current evidence.

While the supply and distribution of the health workforce are but two components of what determines access to health services, the information gathered through the audit is not the solution to the problem that faces rural and regional Australia. It is, however, a necessary first step. Work will continue over the coming months as I consider the various programs for which I am responsible, how these could operate better and what else is needed to be done to ensure that we are able to better meet the health needs of Australians, no matter where they live, now and into the future.

The Hon Nicola Roxon
Minister for Health and Ageing
April 2008